Chroreographers are always looking for ways to reinvent the classics, and this past year saw two very different dance works based on standards. Rennie Harris Puremovement adapted Romeo and Juliet into Rome & Jewels, a hip-hop fable of the perils of gang life, lit by Pamela Hobson, and Christian Holder mixed standard and rediscovered Cole Porter works to create Weren't We Fools?, a story of a love quadrangle, with lighting by Clifton Taylor.
Pamela Hobson was a psychology major at Howard University, hanging out with friends in the fine arts program. "They told me that if I wanted to stay there I needed to do some work," she relates, "so I was in charge of props for a while, then I stayed in it after that. They hired me at the college theatre; it was basically hands-on training - couple of lighting boards, couple of dimmer racks. At the beginning it was trial-and-error, mixing and matching and figuring out what did and didn't work."
Since then she has worked on theatre, concert tours, and modern dance, and was resident LD for Rennie Harris Puremovement for nearly eight years. "Rennie is more concerned with his dancers and he hires production people that he trusts, and gives us basically free rein," Hobson says. For Rome & Jewels (above), "all he said was that he wanted a lot of isolation."
The story focuses on the two rival gangs, the Monster Qs and the Caps, rather than on the love story; in fact, the character of Jewels is not actually portrayed by a dancer but simply referred to in conversations. "I used gobos at the beginning to give it a little bit of texture," the designer explains, "and also the lines represent the boxes we put ourselves in; it's very easy for people to get stuck in their little worlds and they can't get out of their prisons, whatever it is." Passages of Shakespeare's language are quoted and mixed with rap poetry, there are three DJs mixing music live onstage, and the two gangs use different hip-hop dance styles.
"The way the piece was choreographed, it set itself," Hobson comments. "It already was isolated enough that I could use the space and not have to worry about giving Rennie what he wanted." Because the piece is touring, she designed a basic dance rep plot, and "when I put in the patch I isolated stage right, stage left, center stage, in nine sections, so that I could break it up in the general wash area and not have to use that many circuits or dimmers."
There are red and blue back washes, red and aqua sidelight, blue and hot pink from FOH booms, and lots of haze. In one scene the LD created a light sculpture in the center of the space with pale shafts of light with templates. "The choreography was very strong," she says, so she used "very dominant and prominent colors, because it's two powerful families fighting for one girl. Rennie wanted an urban setting, and he likes saturated, deep colors - he's not a bright lighting person - so it was actually kind of fun to keep it kind of dark."
Weren't We Fools? (top) was another colorful show, but with an overtly romantic storyline, and chorographed in more formal ballet style with ballroom flair. Clifton Taylor had to work within American Ballet Theatre's rep plot, but he was able to customize it to give the piece a completely different look from the other ballets on the bill.
As the curtain rises, the dancers appear to be moving in rippling blue light. This was achieved with a light pipe rigged with two sets of lamps focused to different trims in different shades of blue with foliage templates. The light pipe flies out just ahead of the rising curtain. "Christian kept talking about magic and transformational moments," Taylor says. "I wanted the audience to know from the very first view that what we're seeing is not necessarily realistic."
The first section uses a plain black backdrop with lots of haze to create architectural beams in the air for a Hollywood premiere feeling. Taylor also used several contrasting secondary colors such as purple, teal, and lavender for a lush and imaginative environment. Three chandeliers fly in; another section uses a star drop. At one point, Taylor mixed a champagne gold stage wash with a deep purple cyc.
"There's an amber diagonal back system in the ABT rep plot which, when I've worked with this plot in the past, I've always cursed," Taylor says. "However, in this case, it was perfect because it's this warm backlight color that is very mixable. To get this champagne color was Lee 134 Golden Amber mixing with Lee 181 Congo Blue sidelight, which pinked it up enough that the amber was cut. A lot of times what dance designers do that maybe other designers don't do as much, is figure out how to mix to the colors they need, given the colors that exist."
For the climactic scene when the Husband discovers the Woman's affair, her emotional turmoil is displayed through dramatic use of purple light: Even the flames in the chandelier turn that color. "We fitted a second lightbulb dipped in purple behind the main bulb of the chandelier candle. The front bulb is clear, and we crossfade between the two," Taylor explains. "It's this nightmarish vision; it has this beauty but it's almost pushed over the top."